I have, in recent history, spent several years diving into the murky waters of the social care system, as a foster carer and now adoptive parent, trying to play a small part in the ceaseless task of salvaging children from the wreckage of perpetual cycles of poverty, abuse, and neglect. This experience has been painful and alienating, and the shadow of secondary trauma is still present in my bones. In the same breath, it is the most beautiful thing, as a family, we have ever done. What I don’t think I realised until the global pandemic is how fundamentally this experience changed my frame of reference.
My knowledge of the term ‘Good enough’ parenting served me well through lockdown. I did not fly into a panic about google classroom, and how to structure a full day’s curriculum from home. Nor did I suffer from sleepless nights, wracked with worry about failing to balance full time working from home, with full-time parenting. Instead, I quietly put the files of school printouts into a never to be opened drawer, handed my children the TV remote, and resigned myself to months of apocalyptic kitchen surfaces.
On the occasions I checked on my children between emails and zoom meetings to find them still in their pajamas in the afternoon, rubbing crisps into the sofa, I did not feel pangs of guilt and worry. Just mild irritation, mixed with warm fuzzy love. I felt empathy for children who were previously relying on the institutionalised care of the education system as their safe space, now with no port, and perhaps in an unimaginable storm of pressure at home. I thought of social workers, struggling to juggle the impossible task of too many children/not enough foster carers. A problem exacerbated greatly as a by-product of the pandemic. I wondered how they were coping.
Expanding frames of reference
I don’t think I would have thought this way if I hadn’t had personal involvement in the care system. What previously would have been unimaginable, and therefore an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem was now real to me. It had given me a wider sense of perspective, and with it, a resiliency to draw on that I previously hadn’t realised was there. The experience of fostering and adopting had expanded my frame of reference.
I am not the only one to find a sudden flood of perspective during lockdown. In a call with a good friend, she pointed out that very quickly over the last few months the list of issues each of us is dealing with has grown considerably. And yet our speech is peppered with expressions of gratitude, for what we do have.
The global sharing of fear, trauma, change, and uncertainty, brought on by Covid-19, may have broken through years of western privilege, just enough that we can peep through and see past our own noses. Covid -19 may have collectively re-awoken in us the awareness of our shared human experience, and perhaps a corresponding flood of compassion.
Compassion is ‘Suffering with another’
Compassion is not a passive emotion, but a call to action, and can be thought of as the experience of suffering ‘with’ another. Feeling another’s pain as your own prompts a desire to act to alleviate that suffering.
A problem we face is that, for a lot of us, feeling another’s pain as our own is unimaginable if they are too far out of our frame of reference. It is genuinely hard without first-hand experience, to put ourselves in another’s shoes.
Everyone suffers and I am not trying to diminish anyone’s personal experience. However, if for example, we take the Corruptions Perceptions Index as a scale, it is hard for those living in the yellow areas; which are considered safe and democratic, to contemplate the experiences of those who happen to be born in the red areas; with more people likely to be living with the ramifications of decades of poverty, fear, and uncertainty.
Optimistically, I sense that, in the global sharing of a health crisis, more people are seeing the ‘sameness’ of ourselves and others. Suddenly we have a common thread of restriction and fear, which affects us all. This has potentially nudged our collective frame of reference a little wider. There has been, to my mind, a perceptible difference in the mainstream media recently; with more sharing of individual stories, compelling us, for example, to acknowledge refugees as people, not statistics. Highlighting that the differences between us are more often not personal but circumstantial.
Western society is by nature, deeply individualistic, with the consumer-driven, capitalist structure feeding on our attachment to feather our own nests. Maybe, thanks to sharing a common ill, we have a unique opportunity to tentatively wriggle loose enough from the hypnotic grips of individualism to wake up to our shared humanity.
Actively cultivating compassion
Compassion is something that can be actively cultivated and used as a catalyst for action. As individuals, the change we are able to make to the lives of others may be limited. But by allowing our frame of reference to be nudged wider, and by being awake to the pain of others we gain in awareness. This can lead to deeper resilience as individuals and a developed sense of perspective and gratitude. Collectively we may be able to use the grit of experiencing shared suffering and hardship as a force for change.